A Working Pro’s Transition To Mirrorless Cameras. Are You Ready To Make The Switch?

Ike shooting the stars with his A6000 from camp on the Tonto Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. I shot this at ISO3200 at 15sec. @F/4. Focusing at night is a little tricky with an electronic view finder (EVF). In low light there is a lot of noise and I used the MF mode which magnifies the image for focus assist. It helps a lot but takes getting used to. Ike is illuminated by his Sony’s LCD. My image at ISO 3200 looked amazing and moving the luminance and color noise sliders to about 45 in Lightroom resulted in a beautiful image. The smaller lenses allow more depth of field than the equivalent full frame focal length.

There is a wealth of reviews of virtually every piece of photo gear made, both on dedicated review sites as well as thousands of customer reviews on retail sites such as B&H. My review is not meant to re-hash what’s already been revealed. My goal is to offer a performance perspective from a working pro with broad outdoor photography interests. This is non-scientific review about quality and performance of this camera. Is this $1000 smallish camera body a serious professional tool capable of performing and delivering pro results?

The short answer? Yes. But it takes some getting used to. Don’t want to read much further? Then here is my Sony A6300 (with Zeiss 16-70F/4) Report Card.

  • Image quality (compared to Canon 5D Mark III with 24-70F/4 L): A+. Pound for pound, across the aperture and zoom range, I find no noticeable difference in image quality and sharpness. There are some minor differences in auto white balance performance and contrast. I still like the Canon 5D files a little better but that is very subjective. The A6300 has the best APS-C sensor I’ve used.
  • Price: A. You really get a lot of features for a $1000 body.
  • Autofocus performance: Manual and single shot: A. Continuous: A or D. Seriously, there is no in-between. When it’s on, like tracking skiers flying through trees in flat light, it is dead nuts on with a 90% keep rate. When it’s off, it’s WAY off, like not just a little soft, but like, it can’t lock onto a subject in bright backlight (in servo mode) to save its life resulting in an entire series of blur!
  • Metering accuracy: A. Maybe even slightly better than the 5D3.
  • Ergonomics: C. I can’t make my hands smaller. Please, some more thought into button layout. This is where they need the most help in my opinion.
  • Customization: like being able to change settings quickly from landscape shooting to action shooting (or visa versa): D.
  • Image Stabilization: B. No better than Canon, although it’s in the camera body not the lens. It doesn’t work with all lenses. Disappointingly, IS is not available with my new dedicated 12mm/F2.8 Touit.

 
 
Last spring I knew I had to get a different outfit for the type of hiking, canyoneering and skiing I do. I was tired of carrying heavy Canon gear long distances along with all the other gear I needed. Every pound adds up. With my plans to hike long sections of the Pacific Crest Trail getting a lighter outfit without sacrificing pro results and performance was critically important to me. I looked at a lot of options including using a lighter entry level Canon DSLR with my existing lenses. That option seemed to offer very little in weight or cost savings.

Self portrait on the PCT in Washington’s North Cascades, 4 miles from the US-Canada border. The camera is on a mini tripod with 10 second self timer. The first 10-days of my hike were wet and cold. The Sony in the f-stop’s Navin Pack mounted on my chest remained pretty resistant to the near constant wet and cold. I never had any condensation problems in the lens.

This was an agonizing decision. I looked hard at the modern crop of 1” sensor point and shoot cameras. They are fantastic, fun to use travel photography tools with great optics and zoom ranges. I just wasn’t ready to go that small and sacrifice not having files I felt were suitable for large prints and large magazine use. Going with the full frame Sony A7R only saved weight on the body. The full frame lenses are as heavy as the Canon L lenses, so no real savings with a Sony full frame system. So I settled on the mirrorless APS-C system.

After all the years of shooting pro level Canon DSLRs with L series lenses, it was hard to believe that now I was holding a camera and lens (24mp with equivalent to a 24-105F/4) literally a third of the weight, size and cost that was capable of delivering images of equal quality. Since acquiring the A6300 with 16-70F/4 last I have landed a 1.5 page spread and cover of Backpacker Magazine with this camera/lens.

My Pacific Crest Trail camera outfit. Sony Alpha6300, Sony-Zeiss 16-70F4 lens, Really Right Stuff compact tripod and mini ballhead, 55mm B+W polarizer, Singh-Ray 3-stop hard step, 100mmx150mm graduated ND, extra battery and wall charger, lens pen, 2 extra SD cards and F-Stop Navin chest holster case. The camera and lens with the Really Right Stuff camera plate with battery and SD card weighs 1.8 pounds. The whole ensemble was 3.2 pounds.

Initially purchased for a niche landscape outfit for personal backpacking trips I have since used it on ski action and backcountry adventure work for both stock projects and on assignment. More on that later. With a smaller base outfit, everything else I need is also smaller like filters, cases, tripod head and camera plate.

Prior to the A6300 I was not a big fan of cropped sensors. In fact, I sold my Canon 7D and 50D a month after purchasing it. The files were inferior to me compared to the original 5D. I don’t know what Sony did with their cropped sensors, but they are considerably better than the earlier Canon cropped sensors.

When new cameras come out, reviewers go hog wild with descriptions of all the technological advancements. No camera/lens combination gets any consideration from me unless the optical quality for big prints and pro results is there. That’s the foundation. Beyond that, I try to see through all the hoopla and remind myself that ALL cameras are still the same basic thing: a light proof box with 2 functions – exposure and focus. The ease and accuracy of the 2 basic functions determines performance. I value performance and practical function over whiz-bang bells and whistles, most of which I never use.

There are 5 functions and operations I use and change regularly when my eye is to the viewfinder. They are:

  1. Changing the aperture and shutter in manual.
  2. Applying exposure compensation in aperture or shutter priority mode.
  3. Changing focus points on the fly.
  4. Using manual focus override, or changing focus modes (servo to one shot AF).
  5. Changing ISO.

 
The ease of using the 5 functions mentioned above is why I chose Canon in the first place years ago. The layout and ergonomics just made sense to me. The A6300 has some serious performance and ergonomic design issues to improve upon. I can’t reduce the size of my hands without serious loss of blood, so I don’t know how much smaller they can make camera bodies. Sony can, however, put a little more thought into button and dial layout. For example, I operate mainly in Aperture Priority mode. I change the aperture setting by spinning a wheel with my right thumb. It is easy to accidentally change the shooting mode as that wheel is close and similar in feel when your eye is in the viewfinder concentrating on the image! The thumb wheel is too small and often jumps functions. I can’t just change focus points unless I turn the focus point selection on.

My friend Catrin shot this image of me using the A6300 with 16-70F/4 lens (24-105 full frame equivalent) on the Watchman Trail in Zion National Park Utah. She shot this with my 5D Mark III with the 24-70F2.8L. The next image shows what I shot of her while she shot this of me.

This is my friend Catrin, with my Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 24-70F/2.8 L on the Really Right Stuff tripod and head. This is what I saw while lying on my side in the previous image. The Sony A6300 has liberated me somewhat allowing enjoyable photography when I need to be light and mobile. HOWEVER, I am not ready to sell off my Canon system. On important assignments and all day shoots, the Canon still reigns supreme.

Performance as a landscape camera. The Sony A6300 has everything you need to create excellent landscape images. And you never have to lock up the mirror. My favorite mode is DMF (Direct Manual Focus) where the camera lets you set a focus point, and uses a keyed color display to tell you what is in focus and what is not. I find this very useful. I can turn the focus ring and the camera will do a 5X magnification to assist with critical focus. This has been helpful in twilight shooting. When on a tripod, Sony recommends turning IS off. On the Canon, this is a nano-second flip of a switch on the lens barrel. On the Sony, I have to press 3 buttons needing reading glasses to get to the same point. Again, they have all the right stuff. They just need to improve performance. Switching IS modes should be a one button function.

Sunrise over the Inner Gorge along the Tonto Trail, Grand Canyon. 16-70 lens at 16mm. ISO400. 1/60th sec at F16

Emily and Jordan Star gazing in the Zion backcountry near Northgate Peaks. Sony A6300 with Sony-Zeiss 16-70F4 lens at 16mm. ISO1250, 8 seconds @ F4. The DMF (Direct Manual Focus) mode was the most helpful. By pressing down the focus button while turning the manual focus ring, the camera does a 5X magnification, allowing easier focus on the tent and couple in low light.

Performance as an action camera. All new camera systems seem cumbersome at first. Thankfully, I stuck to the golden rule of never using an unfamiliar camera on an assignment. I am also glad I waited until I’ve used this camera for 10 months before writing about its capability as an action camera. I wanted to rule out the bias of newness and learning how the camera functions. Although I’ve used the A6300 on a ski action assignment and a backpack assignment with success, I still believe the A6300 really needs help as a performance action camera.

This is from my first winter stock shoot with the Sony. We had single digit temperatures and the Sony battery, NP-FW50, drained fast. But, the AF-C focus mode did will tracking this skier in the trees in flat light. 16-70 Zeiss lens, 1/400th second @F5.6, 400 ISO

I did a few stock shoots with the Sony before even considering using it on a paid assignment. This camera has trouble locking focus in strong backlight in continuous (AF-C) mode. With grainless images at ISO 400 and with lots of bright light I was able to zone focus this image using the DMF (direct manual focus) mode with the viewfinder indicating what was focused and what was not, using a keyed color display, at 1/1000 second at F/11 at 16mm (24mm full frame equivalent)

These were shot on assignment where I finally had some confidence in the AF-C focus mode. We had a very advanced skier flying downhill with trees between him and the camera. I shoot in conditions like this frequently and have developed the motor skills to keep up with my subject. The sensor stayed locked on the skier on this sequence even though trees were moving rapidly in front of the selected focus point.

They boast about their fast frame rate (11fps, almost double the 5D3) and speed and accuracy of their hybrid phase and contrast detection focus systems. You have more of the sensor available to you for focus points allowing more flexibility in image composition with moving subjects. The focus tracking accuracy (AF-C) in backlight is dismal. In most other situations, it is great. With phase detection, the camera doesn’t “search.” It knows it needs to focus closer or further and it locks on very fast. Like any other system, focus performance accuracy varies from lens to lens. The 16-70/F4 Sony-Zeiss is much better than the 12/F2.8 Zeiss Touit.

The small Zeiss 12mmF2.8 Touit is great in narrow slot canyons. This is one of our canyoneers near Zion in mid-May. As a prime lens I am surprised at how much flare I get. But it is sharp. Touit 12mmF2.8 ISO800, 1/20th second, hand held, @F16.

I had to learn to turn off the auto review feature so I can track my subject live as I’m shooting an action sequence. They don’t make it obvious or easy to do this and at first I couldn’t track a subject because all I saw in the electronic viewfinder was a review of the first shot I took. The Sony does everything you need to do for action work. It is just more clunky than using pro level 1 or 5 series Canons.

I’ve witnessed 2 major camera technology revolutions in my career as a photographer. The first was autofocus lenses in the early 1990’s. First seen as gimmicky and a crutch for hobbyists, predictive autofocus with multiple focus point selection changed action photography standards forever. The next tectonic shift was, of course, the transition from film to digital SLR cameras. No elaboration needed. In a practical sense, mainly for commercial work, film is long gone. I think we are on the verge of a third major shift. I believe mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses along with the evolution of smartphone cameras will make the digital SLR near obsolete.

Over time, Sony will hopefully improve the current ergonomic and performance shortcomings and mirrorless image making bodies will out perform the top pro bodies we know today. This is just a prediction and I don’t know when this will happen. It’s not going to be in the next 12 months but probably within 10 years. Glad I jumped in on the upward emergence of mirrorless cameras as serious professional image making tools.

This is a screen grab from Lightroom showing how an image looks with my default develop preset I made for this camera. In normal daylight, the focus tracking, or zone focus, worked great with a distant action shot of Lauri hiking the High Sierra last fall.

THE GOOD:

  • Compact weight.
  • Excellent optical quality in smaller package.
  • Lower price point than comparable DSLR’s.
  • More focus point options.
  • Fast motor drive.
  • Image stabilization built into camera.
  • Depth of field verification system in Manual and Direct Manual focus modes.
  • No mirror lock up needed!

 
THE BAD:

  • Poor instruction manual from Sony. (I recommend David Busch’s Sony Alpha/ILCE-6300 Guide to Digital Photography.)
  • Lack of smaller, fast aperture telephotos specifically designed for the APS-C format. How about a 45-135F2.8 (70-200 full frame) smaller than a Canon 70-200F/4?
  • Very slow start up time to the point where you will miss shots.
  • Buttons and dials with competing functions too close together.
  • Reconfiguring the camera for different shooting styles (landscape/macro to action) is clunky at best.
  • No quick AF to MF on the lens.
  • No full time MF override in ANY focus mode like Canon.

 
THE UGLY:

  • Battery life sucks big time! I change batteries for every 16gb card in temperate weather. I don’t chimp much. I have auto review and wifi turned off. And they are expensive ($78 when this blog was written.)
  • They put the media card slot in the battery compartment so you have to turn the camera upside to change cards. The media card should have its own easy to reach compartment when the camera is upright with a one-touch formatting function.

 

The smaller Sony has made it much nicer to shoot in tight spaces with low light such as in slot canyons near Zion. A lighter load with smaller camera pack makes rappelling and down climbing in narrow walls easier. 16-70 lens at 43mm. ISO800, 1/100th second @F4.5

Best Of 2016 – New Mexico to Alaska and Points In Between

In this post I am showcasing a selection of my most memorable images of 2016. Each one has an expanded caption providing context on how the image came to be.

Are these really my “best” images of the year? Hard to say. The hardest part in doing a “best of” series is narrowing your selects down to a reasonable number. Photographers, even with 20+ years of commercial experience, are still their own worst editors. To help with my selection, I relied on the opinion of others. First, I chose 6 of my top 10 Instagram posts of 2016. Next, I chose several selects from 4 memorable assignments. The remainder are personal favorites with little regard for their commercial potential. They are shots that represent milestones for me or just shots I really dig. My personal favorites include a mix of Alaska and Southwest landscapes and some from my Zion workshops.

Instagram Top 10 – Spring photo workshop, Zion National Park, Utah.
Canon 5DIII 24-70F/4L IS at 28mm ISO800 1/40 sec @f6.3 hand held with Image Stabilization.
This is Roxanne, one of my Alaskan friends that took my spring workshop. After the workshop, she hung around so we could go to places that we can’t go to during the workshop like hidden slot canyons that I don’t reveal. This shot is a bit cliche’ but it is my top Instagram post for the year. It also got picked up by Canon USA and Canon UK where it received thousands of likes.

I always try to challenge my photographic weaknesses, mostly shooting candid portraits. I define “weakness” as being uncomfortable or unconfident that I am making good images in a genre that I normally don’t shoot much of. I like action and environmental portraits better than static ones. I tried this mainly on the trail as I anticipated instant camaraderie with fellow trail hikers. Even then, I only “clicked” with a few fellow hikers that I felt comfortable photographing at close range. Fortunately, 2 of my action portraits, one from the PCT, made my Instagram top 10. That gives me some validation that I am getting better at portraits!

Sometimes great images just fall into your lap. But that is the exception, not the rule. There are a few here where that happened. For example, on a foggy ridge just outside the Glacier Peaks Wilderness on my southbound Pacific Crest Trail hike through Washington, I almost literally “ran into” Hummingbird, a northbound hiker. 5-minutes later, I made an on-the-spot action portrait of her that became my favorite trail portrait and my second most popular Instagram post of 2016.

Personal Favorite – PCT, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sierra Nevada, California.
Sony A6300 Zeiss 16-70/F4 at 26mm ISO400 1/25sec @f6.3, with B+W polarizer, hand held.
This shot exemplifies the ideal of spending more time finding the image than actually shooting it. We arrived at this location at Island Pass in the Sierra in mid-afternoon with the mountains you see in harsh backlight with a stiff breeze across the lake. This is Banner Peak, an icon around Mammoth Lakes and the Minaret Range. Most people shoot this from the well-known Thousand Island Lakes which was 2 miles further down trail. After analyzing where the morning light would be, we decided to stay here to make sunrise shots. When my iPhone alarm went off on this frosty fall morning, we were blessed with clear skies and calm winds. Lauri knew exactly what to wear and where to go. I knew exactly where to shoot from to frame up a pleasing horizontal and vertical versions of this image.

More often than not, great images are the result of spending more time finding the image than the actual shooting. Your ability to find and exploit great light, to make light when Mother Nature isn’t helping, and to read your subject’s emotions and personalities directing and motivating them to get what you are after visually are all important skills beyond your technical mastery that define who you are as a photographer. They define your vision and it is your vision, not your equipment, that gets you hired. On assignments and personal productions alike, there are always problems to solve and creative soul searching to do that lead to great imagery.

As a workshop leader and instructor, teaching and motivating others on how to take better images, I am careful to make sure I always practice what I preach, placing more emphasis on vision and creativity than on technique or equipment. Focusing and improving on your life skills and creative vision make it possible to fully exploit unforeseen, “fall into your lap” photo opportunities even when you are on assignment executing a shot list. It sure helps keep photography fun!

Personal Favorite – Turnagain Arm, Alaska
Canon 5DIII 24-70F2.8L at 29mm ISO100 1/3 sec @f16 with Singh-Ray 3 stop, soft step graduated neutral density filter
Lupine wildflowers at sunset along Turnagain Arm, near Girdwood, AK. Been shooting these for decades. Never gets old. I just keep updating my landscapes on newer digital sensors. The sky, the water level and color, and feel of the light are always different.

Assignment Image – Clovis, New Mexico.
Canon 5DIII 24-70F/2.8L at 40mm ISO320 1/500 sec @f7.1 with ST-E3 transmitter and 600RT speedlite with Spinlight 360 grid.
I got another chance to make some sports portraits using our strobes and mixing the light with the waning sunset colors and stadium lights at the Clovis High School. This was Rohan, a Wendy’s High School Heisman 2016 national finalist.

Personal Favorite – Tonto Trail backpacking, South Kiabab Trail to Grandview, Grand Canyon National Park.
Sony A6300 Zeiss 16-70F/4 at 16mm ISO3200 15 seconds @f4
This is our friend and fellow photographer Ike on a November backpack trip. At an at-large camp above the Inner Gorge with virtually no light pollution, we were shooting lit tents (Lauri painting with a headlamp) when I noticed his LCD screen illuminating his face. So I made him next to his tent my subject allowing the very low intensity light from his camera LCD to paint him with light. Ike did great holding still for 15 seconds. I shot this with my new backpack camera, the Sony A6300 mirrorless with Zeiss 16-70F/4 lens.

Personal Favorite – Workshop, Subway, Zion National Park, Utah
Canon 5DIII 17-40F/4 at 17mm ISO100 1/20sec @F/16 with B+W circular polarizer
After our Zion Fall Landscape Workshop, I got a permit for the Subway, a 6 mile hike to this very spot. We can’t go here during the workshop so I went here the day after it ended and one of my participants went with me. I’ve been at the Subway multiple times but the last 5 times has been from the top down, which most photographer’s don’t do since the top-down route is technical and involves swims and rappels. When I do that I focus on the adventure side of the Subway. I wanted to go back and re-do a lot of landscapes on newer cameras. When we got here there was a group of 6 people lined up all across this scene. But no other shooter saw this angle. When one photographer pulled out I went to his spot but I decided to stand in the waist deep pool behind me and shoot this low angle. I asked the photographer to my right to move over slightly (which he obliged) but I still got a piece of his tripod in the image.

Assignment Image and Instagram top 10, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Canon 5DIII 17-40F/4 at 20mm ISO200 1/125sec @f16 with St-E3 on camera and 600RT with Spinlight 360 with half cut CTO and 1/4″ grid
This is from the La Tierra Trails in Santa Fe. I love working action with more than one person and using off camera lighting and making it all work. I prefer to shoot into the light with some sort of natural fill light (snow, sand, light colored dirt or walls) and then using off camera strobes to supplement the light. This is the type of assignment shooting I love doing the most.

Personal Favorite – PCT, Cascade Mountains, Washington
Sony A6300 Zeiss 16-70F/4 at 44mm ISO400 1/500 sec @f7.1
Southbound (SOBO) thru hiker trail name, “Neemore” (need less, want more), hiking in early morning at Scout Pass with Mt. Rainier in background. I met Neemore at like 6:30 am at Scout Pass as I was frantically looking for my lost spoon, my only eating utensil. He simply gave me his spoon (which was identical to the one I lost) saying he wasn’t using it and thanking me for lightening his pack. People rarely look good with direct sunlight but the sun was just on the horizon and still soft enough to make a decent front lit portrait.

Personal Favorite – PCT, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Washington
Sony A6300 Zeiss 16-70F/4 at 19mm ISO400 1/20sec @f8 with B+W circular polarizer
First light on peaks above Lemah Valley with reflection on small nameless pond near timberline. This was the first location on the trail where I had to remind myself that this hike was not just about making miles. I stopped here in mid-afternoon and stayed predicting that I would get nice first light on these peaks. The altocumulus clouds were a plus. I did not bring a tripod on this stretch so I relied on the image stabilization in the camera to help. It did great.

Instagram top 10 – PCT, Washington
Sony A6300 Zeiss16-70F/4at 70mm ISO400 1/80sec @f9
Most long distance hikers adopt trail names. Somebody else gives you one and you can choose to accept it. They are often funny and easier to remember than real names. But, I do know her real name as well. This is northbound PCT hiker, “Hummingbird”, walking in the fog as she was approaching the Glacier Peak Wilderness. We talked for a good 5 minutes. She has a warm and outgoing personality and she was the first person on trail that I asked to photograph. I could not pass up such a great subject in soft light that makes everyone look good. She is the real deal and about as authentic as you can be as a thru hiker. This is my favorite trail portrait from all of my hike.

Personal Favorite – PCT, Washington Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Sony A6300 Zeiss 16-70F/4 at 41mm ISO400 1/60 sec @f9 hand held
After a frustrating week of wet, cold weather with very little good light, in July, I awoke on the summit of Grizzly Peak in fog. But this time I rejoiced knowing that at some point the fog would thin and I would get some great sun shafts. This was quite a treat after a week dry spell in photos.

Instagram Top 10 – Hikers on Portage Pass, Alaska.
Canon 5DIII 70-200F/4L at 200mm ISO400 1/500 sec @f4
I put together the 3 things needed to get a good image. We went to a target rich scenic area, I was with amazing and photogenic talent, Lila and Kelly (both of whom are life long Alaskans and intrepid hikers), and be there in good light. With all that, everything else just falls into place. Hiking Portage Pass with views of Portage Glacier and Passage Canal, Prince William Sound, Chugach NF, Alaska

Instagram Top 10 – Hikers on Portage Pass, Alaska.
Canon 5DIII 17-40F/4L at 17mm ISO400 1/640 sec @f9 with Singh_Ray LB polarizer.
I put together the 3 things needed to get a good image. We went to a target rich scenic area, I was with amazing and photogenic talent, Lila and Kelly (both of whom are life long Alaskans and intrepid hikers), and be there in good light. With all that, everything else just falls into place. Hiking Portage Pass with views of Portage Glacier and Passage Canal, Prince William Sound, Chugach NF, Alaska

Personal Favorite – Stock production.
Canon 5DIII 17-40F/4 at 17mm ISO400 1/640 sec @f8
This was completely different from what I planned on shooting and I am glad I have the ability to be adaptable and think outside the box. I planned on doing hiking scenarios with a young couple at Byron Glacier. But Whitney, one of my favorite people to work with, shows up with a new, clean car with a sun roof. If anyone can pull off still looking good with a 17mm lens in their face it’s Whitney. I knew she excels at enthusiastic expressions. I quickly summed up the resources I had in front of me and remembering the credo of “shoot what’s happening”, I abandoned, or rather postponed our hiking plans to shoot this concept on a beautiful early evening in Portage Valley. Please, no comments about how I am promoting unsafe activities. We were well aware of the Bear Valley to Whittier tunnel schedule and we did this on a half mile stretch with virtually no other vehicles on this side road.

Assignment Image – Chartered Sport fishing from Seward, Alaska.
Canon 5DIII 24-70F2.8L at 42mm ISO400 1/400 sec @f10
Photos can be made more compelling by finding interesting and unique perspectives. Being a fisherman myself, one of the crew members brought a flyfishing float tube and fins so I could get in the water and get this nice low angle of a charter fishing boat in Thumb Cove. The tides are always changing so I am shooting while kicking with my fins to keep from spinning around and drifting too far from the boat. And, yes, even with thick fleece pants and waterproof chest waders, this glacial water is still damn cold!

Personal Favorite – Workshop, Buckskin Canyon, Paria Wilderness, Utah.
Canon 5DIII 70-200F/4L at 176mm ISO1600 1/160 sec @F4.5
After our Spring Landscape workshop in Zion, I took some friends and fellow photographers to Buckskin Canyon – a well known and popular place amongst photographers. It was a great day. Remembering Jay Maisel’s words, “If you are shooting something everyone else shoots, make it your own.” So I began keying in on people’s expressions and emotions seeing this magical place for the first time. This is our friend and fellow photographer Tammy. I’ve worked with her before as talent and I saw that she was very impressed with this location and experience so I asked her to re-create her expressions I saw earlier. The best part was that others got to see my whole creative process from coming up with the idea to creating the shot to the post processing.

Personal Favorite – Workshop, Zion National Park, Utah.
Canon 5DIII 17-40F4 at 17mm ISO100 1/15 sec @f16 with Singh_Ray 3 stop, soft step graduated neutral density filter.
When I find a place I really like I go back there multiple times at different times of the year, if feasible. This is one of my “go to” sunset locations overlooking Hop Valley. The clouds, and sun position are always different. My favorite landscape technique is to shoot backlight with reflective subject matter, like the light sandstone which helps bounce warm light around. After our Spring Landscape Workshop, I took a few participants to this location where we can’t legally go to on a commercial workshop.

Instagram Top 10 – Sunset over Hop Valley, Zion National Park, Utah.
Canon 5DIII 17-40F/4L at 17mm ISO400 1/20sec @f16 with 3-stop soft step graduated neutral density filter.
This is how we ended the day on a very challenging shoot. This is Heidi who has shot for us for years in Alaska. This was her first shoot with us in Utah. I was in a funk because Lauri had broken her leg earlier in the day. (We didn’t know it was broken at the time.) She was resting comfortably at our friends house in Springdale and encouraged me to go out and do our planned shoot. Heidi is just awesome and has time after time saved a shoot when my creativity wasn’t where it needed to be. Luckily, I knew the location and we shot a bunch of stuff earlier with her partner, Hunter, as a couple. When she did this I knew it was golden. Getting great talent is half the battle.

Personal Favorite – Winter trail runner, West Rim Trail, Taos, New Mexico.
Canon 5DIII 70-200F/4 at 155mm ISO400 1/1000 sec @f7.1
It is rare when I can get someone doing something while there are big flakes falling with no wind. Usually, it’s too cold, windy, or no talent is available when soft snow is falling. This is Kendra who is the real deal and hikes and or runs daily. She is on the very popular West Rim Trail, a 7-mile trail with a gentle grade that has great views into the Rio Grande Gorge. I almost always use a telephoto to help emphasize the snow. This one was tough to choose as Kendra is really photogenic and I wanted to show her face. But the running away from the camera and the contrast of the trail unfolding in front of her captured my imagination more.

Personal Favorite – Workshop, Emerald Pools, Zion National Park, Utah in winter.
Canon 5DIII 70-200F/4L at 70mm ISO100 1/2sec @f16 with circular polarizer
This is another example of bad weather = good images. The falls don’t run all the time. With the sun out, the light would be harsh and contrasty. With the new snow melting, the falls were running strong, and great colors and saturation were happening. I love snow in the desert! A similar to this was selected for a State of Utah Calendar.

Favorite Images of 2013

Favorite Images of 2013 shot by Adventure Photographer Michael DeYoung

 

This is the longest blog I’ve put out so far. Hopefully it is broken down into easy to read segments. It is about my favorite images for 2013.

Usually my editors or my clients choose the best of my images and trust me, this is a good thing. This time I am choosing my favorite images for 2013 with a brief description as to why. This was a good exercise in practicing what I preach and doing a tight edit. Most photographers struggle with objectively editing their best work. That’s why this blog is about my “favorite” not necessarily my “best” work.   I mean I would like to think my favorite work is my best work, but that isn’t reality.  I will still show deference to my editors.

With nearly 42k images shot in 2013 and edited down to 10.3k in my Lightroom master catalog, it was tough to narrow them down to 13. (OK, I’m stretching the truth a little. I’m counting 3 very closely related pairs as 1 photo so total is 17.) Why 13? It’s not because it was 2013 but more because I’m feeling “anti 10.” Too many things seem to be “top 10 this” or “best 10 that.” Why is “10” the most popular number for a collective? Who knows? It could be due to the metric system or Moses. If Moses had come down the mountain with 9 commandments our magazine world might be different today. Magazine articles or blogs that read: “9 best whatever” don’t sound all that bad to me. Well, baseball and golf courses like 9 so it can’t be all that bad. How does 9 “whatever” relate to 13 photos? It doesn’t. It’s just silly thinking. Let’s look at some photos. Hope you enjoy them.

Skiers hiking up Kachina Peak to ski down Main Street, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Skiers hiking up Kachina Peak to ski down Main Street, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

PEAK EXPERIENCE. Sometimes timing is everything when going after the “killer shot” It takes me about an hour to hike from the top of Chair 2 at Taos Ski Valley to the top of 12, 400′ Kachina Peak. We picked a great day with fresh snow, blue skies, light winds and two great skiers. Everyone expects killer ski shots to involve air and exploding powder. For me pulling off a good ski lifestyle shot is more difficult. Hiking up Kachina slows me down and, as my lungs are searching for oxygen, it gives me time to think about crafting different shots. This shot is being used in an ad campaign to promote Taos as a winter destination. About a half hour later we started doing ski action shots with my two great skiers, Matt Gresham and Andrea Krejci.

On this action shot, shooting into the sun with a fixed 20mm lens, I asked Andrea to ski right at me and do a sudden stop about 5 feet in front of me. This is where I trusted her ability to execute a precision move and not mow me over. The reason I had her do this is because the terrain opposite the sun sloped downhill and away from me and thus not providing enough natural fill. I knew that if Andrea executed this move the way I envisioned (which she did – several times) she would create her own fill light at the last second.  It worked. This shot was used by the original client for the cover of the Taos Ski Valley Visitor Guide.

Skier carving a hard left turn on Main Street off Kachina Peak, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Skier carving a hard left turn on Main Street off Kachina Peak, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

THE GRAND ROYAL HIKE. Good friend John Hoffer, Lauri and I got to go where few people go to and what could be the most awesome and moving spot in the Grand Canyon – the Royal Arch. It took three days of backpacking to get here. As the sun was cresting over the top of the arch, I laid on my back and captured my two hiking companions with the 15mm fisheye. Leaving the arch involved a precipitous hike out and gnarly descent with a 20 foot rappel (with backpacks) down to the Colorado River and a two-day hike out along the Western Tonto and out Bass Canyon.

Hikers/backpackers standing beneath the Royal Arch in Royal Arch Creek, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Hikers/backpackers standing beneath the Royal Arch in Royal Arch Creek, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

BRING EARPLUGS NEXT TIME! This is a mental note I made to myself after sitting in a raft, 4 feet away from screaming 8 and 9 year old girls. This is a shot I had envisioned for several years but was never able to pull it off due to timing and scheduling. The original concept was to cast a group of college age women all enjoying the thrill of a raft trip. I still plan to do that. In this shot, all five people in the raft, the guide, Matt, and the four girls are all skiers and I worked with all of them the previously at Taos Ski Valley. When I saw how well the girls worked together I knew they would be a hoot in a raft. With the water being really low last summer, it seemed more fitting to have a younger crew based on the smaller rapids. We scheduled the shoot for later in the day for better light and I sat on the bow with my rig in a housing. This shot is a fav because of the girls and their energy and because I had envisioned this for a long time. This is a classic case where literally the success of this was 90% planning, 10% shooting.

group of four 8 and 9 year old girls screaming through a rapid on guided raft trip, Racecourse Run, Rio Grande, New Mexico

group of four 8 and 9 year old girls screaming through a rapid on guided raft trip, Racecourse Run, Rio Grande, New Mexico

GLACIER EXPRESS. These 2 were part of my assignment for the State of Alaska covering tourism in the Portage-Whittier area. Our tour included taking my two super models, Melody and her son, Adam, both lifelong Alaskans, out to Spencer Glacier were we would be in the very capable hands of Matt Szundy, owner of The Ascending Path, for a short paddle and glacier hike. I really wanted to capture a shot of a person feeling the wind and being enthralled with the scenery as the train whisked along through jaw dropping Placer River Valley. This was a very tight space as both Melody and I had to squeeze in the 4 foot space between rocking and rolling train cars. I have my back slammed up against the car opposite of Melody with my arm stretched out as far as possible blazing away. I knew that shooting really wide at such close distance would create facial distortion. I did not want to ruin her pretty face with the brutality of 17mm lens. This is one of my favs because it was a “longshot” and it is all Melody. She really pulled off a nice look that I was after and she held up well against the 17mm lens.

Passenger on Alaska Railroad's Glacier Express peers out window between cars traveling up the Placer River Valley toward Spencer Glacier

Passenger on Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Express peers out window between cars traveling up the Placer River Valley toward Spencer Glacier

After several near backbreaking sessions to get the shot I really wanted Melody stuck her head with her hair down completely out the window and I loved her long black hair flying forward. A quick re-positioning of the strobe and I got a light hearted shot I liked even better.

Passenger on Alaska Railroad's Glacier Express peers out window between cars traveling up the Placer River Valley toward Spencer Glacier

Passenger on Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Express peers out window between cars traveling up the Placer River Valley toward Spencer Glacier

CLASSIC TURNAGAIN ARM IN JUNE. The great thing about tourism assignments is they can involve landscape images in addition to the recreation, adventure and portraits involved in travel photography. Literally the day after we arrived in Alaska and not even fully unpacked we were down on Turnagain Arm where every few years there are epic blooms of lupine. Wait for a high tide around sunset (near 11:30pm here), employ 3 strobes and a 3-stop ND grad and presto, lupine at sunset shot. In full disclosure, since I am a commercial shooter I use all tools available to maximize visual impact. I strive to do as much as I can in the field. To fill in the sky I added some low clouds I shot a few days later near the same location at sunset.

Lupine along Turnagain Arm at high tide at sunset, Southcentral Alaska

Lupine along Turnagain Arm at high tide at sunset, Southcentral Alaska

BEARFOOT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD? I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked Denali Park and have driven the 90 mile road on permit and assignments for 20 years. Even though I focus primarily on landscape images there I still have a healthy file of wildlife – including bears from Denali. I am not a big fan of “wildlife on the road” shots either. This is my only decent shot from Denali this summer. Because of assignment demands I was only able to use 2 of my 10 allotted days and we were basically weathered out, as in no mountain. We followed this young bear early one morning as we were heading west for Wonder Lake. Park rules say you can’t force wildlife off the road. Generally, they leave the road in a few minutes anyway but not this fella. No, we crawled behind him for 45 minutes stopping and shooting whenever I saw a decent composition. We could have pushed him off the road. It was just us and the bear but we behaved and just let it go. The foot makes the shot. In post I brought back a little of the dusty backlit morning sun feel that we sometimes see there. It was just a subtle tweak.

Young grizzly bear walking on road in morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

Young grizzly bear walking on road in morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

NEVER TIRE OF THAT MOUNTAIN. I always look for new ways (at least new to me) to show North America’s highest mountain, Mt. McKinley (a.k.a. Denali). Believe it or not I have never shot much in Denali State Park. I was astounded how quick it was to get to this location from the road. The thing is, you can’t see this from the Parks Highway. Last summer we had an exceptionally long stretch of clear and I mean HOT days. In an hour and a half we were able to walk through the horrifying mosquitos in the bog and forest below to the less horrifying mosquitos on the tundra of Ermine Hill with this commanding view of Mt. McKinley towering above the rest of the Alaska Range. We went up here a few days earlier and shot on assignment with 2 hikers for the State of Alaska tourism. On this shot, Lauri and I went by ourselves and ventured higher and off trail to this little knoll. We went early to avoid cumulus clouds obscuring the 20, 320′ peak. The light is “good” not “great” but I am always a sucker for a good shot showing the scale of Denali relative to a hiker. It is not as easy as you think and I just love this south side view.

Lauri on Ermine Hill in Denali State Park dwarfed by Denali viewed from the south

Lauri on Ermine Hill in Denali State Park dwarfed by Denali viewed from the south

MY FAVORITE SHOT OF THE SUMMER with some super outdoor ladies. This is another case where talent and timing are EVERYTHING! A couple of years ago I did a ladies getaway as part of a campaign promoting South Carolina. Ever since then I’ve been wanting to do this my way. Well, after dealing with assignment pressures all summer I was able to get a group of outdoor, lifelong Alaska ladies together who just have GREAT synergy. Meeting after work, my crack team of Lauri and our hard core talent hiked 5 miles in one of my favorite haunts, the South Fork of Eagle River Valley, to shoot an hour of a ladies backcountry getaway, pack up and hoof it back to the car after 10pm returning in the waning August light. My plans to shoot with a warmly lit alpine peak backdrop quickly eroded when low clouds off Cook Inlet started invading the valley. So I turned into the setting sun, employed our speed lighting skills and captured this shot of the ladies enjoying a glass of wine at camp perched on this rock. I would never tire of doing shoots like this. Too bad it rains so much and people have to work all the time!

Four women camping and conversing with drinks at sunset, Chugach State Park, Alaska

Four women camping and conversing with drinks at sunset, Chugach State Park, Alaska

LEAP INTO THE LIGHT.  Sometimes you just gotta play and test some lights.  I was getting ready for my Speedlights,  Camera,  Action workshop that I teach and thought it would be a good idea to just test all the lights and sharpen up what I wanted to demonstrate.   So we took Lila and 3 speed lights, 2 on stands with 1/8″ grids, and one overhead with a soft box and lit Lila up as she is running along a hill in the dark green woods surrounding Anchorage.   Love the woods and all the devil’s club but man, is it dark in there!  So thankful for portable, wireless, TTL speedlight systems.

Trail runner leaping over log, Coastal Trail near Anchorage, Alaska

Trail runner leaping over log, Coastal Trail near Anchorage, Alaska

 

WELCOME TO MY WORLD. This shot is from the Business of Outdoor Photography class that I teach at Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula, Montana. This was our last field shoot and I got to take my group to Holland Lake to do a sunset shoot DeYoung style. We hiked out to Holland Falls late afternoon dealing with forest fire smoke, rain, hail, thunder and lighting. Those who were patient were rewarded with this well above average sunset overlooking Holland Lake and the Mission Mountains. Then we hiked back returning to the trailhead under headlamp. All in a day’s work.

Photographer at sunset, overlooking Holland Lake and the Mission Mountains, Montana

Photographer at sunset, overlooking Holland Lake and the Mission Mountains, Montana

ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES. This is out of the box for me, or should I say, “in the box.” I’m not an indoor shooter but my awesome editor at one of my agencies worked with me on doing a series of personal trainer and client fitness shoots. Well, fitness is right up my alley so why not take it indoors once in a while and stretch my lighting skills. Why this shot is a fav is because I was able to actually execute what I visualized. When I saw what Jennifer was capable of, I wanted to focus on her intensity as she threw a punch with trainer David Garver at Aura Fitness in Taos, New Mexico. I am programmed to usually use big soft boxes or scrims when photographing women. To keep it real and show a more raw training environment including some real sweat, I kept my light on the harder side. I think Jennifer still looks great. How can you go wrong with those eyes! I took a related shot that focused on David after the training session.

Fitness training, Taos, New Mexico, trainer with female client doing boxing/cardio training

Fitness training, Taos, New Mexico, trainer with female client doing boxing/cardio training

Fitness training, Taos, New Mexico, trainer with female client doing boxing/cardio training

Fitness training, Taos, New Mexico, trainer with female client doing boxing/cardio training

25th CELEBRATION IN THE DOLOMITES. Lauri and I celebrated our 25th Anniversary hiking Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites and I’ve blogged about that earlier. Yes, this was a personal trip but to do it without bringing a camera ensemble and at least trying to capture pro images would be unthinkable especially in a place like the Dolomites. Over the years I’ve developed a pretty good feel for knowing when to put the camera down and enjoy the moment and the company you are with and when to get serious and make an image. Any place I go be it on assignment, shooting stock or just personal I at least try to capture that one shot that sums up the essence of the place and why we are there. We were only at each place for a day so I have to make use of all my skills to make compelling shots. This is our second morning leaving Prato Piazza. I loved the pastoral nature of the valley beneath these towering peaks. We went out early, before breakfast to catch sunrise light on the trail we would eventually leave on. I was blessed to get some radiation fog below us as I had Lauri walk toward the trail sign. There were clouds to the east blocking light on the foreground. The way the terrain was situated didn’t lend itself well to using a graduated ND. So I took separate exposures and blended them in post to capture the feel I wanted. Of the thousands of shots I took documenting our trip in the Dolomites, this one says it all to me.

Hiker leaving Prato Piazza Rifugio along Alta Via 1 route at sunrise, Dolomites, Italy

Hiker leaving Prato Piazza Rifugio along Alta Via 1 route at sunrise, Dolomites, Italy

FIVE MINUTE SUNRISE SHOOT AT ZION. In the mid latitudes or prevailing westerlies (the westerlies shift seasonally) there are two scenarios that predictably produce dramatic light. They are approaching storms at sunrise and clearing storms at sunset. This was shot on the morning of an approaching cold front and Lauri and I raced from Springdale up to one of our familiar valleys on the East Mesa section of Zion National Park. We had scouted this the morning before. The light on the cliffs and the color in the clouds lasted maybe five minutes but we were ready for it. Off camera speed light with a grid was used to pull Lauri away from the dark background. Five minutes done. Flat stormy light the rest of the day. This was the first week of November and due to unseasonably cold temps, we were late for fall color this year in Zion Canyon. This shot was the best we got.

Hiker on slickrock on East Mesa at sunrise, Zion National Park, Utah

Hiker on slickrock on East Mesa at sunrise, Zion National Park, Utah

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME, OR NEAR ANYTHING FLAMMABLE.  I love it when an unplanned street shot works out.  I don’t do that a lot.  Such was the case with a Bonfires on Bent Street holiday celebration on Bent Street and the John Dunn Plazza in Taos.  Melarie Roller was out twirling her flaming firestick or baton.  Even though we are shooting from the hip, we don’t sacrifice good technique.  Lauri was working the gridded speedlight off camera and I was using a slow shutter to blur the motion of the baton while the strobe rendered her sharp.  During a break prior to this shot I had asked her to stand closer to this group of kids and face the camera so I could make this shot.  No model releases, nothing serious, just out having fun and celebrating the holidays.

Melarie Roller performing at Bonfires on Bent Street holiday celebration in Taos, New Mexico

Melarie Roller performing at Bonfires on Bent Street holiday celebration in Taos, New Mexico

 

 

Ski Action Photography With a Fisheye Lens

skier-jump-highline-taos-1

Ryan taking some air off HIghline Ridge at Taos Ski Valley. Shot with a Canon 1D Mark IV and Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye at 1/1000 second at f8 at 200 ISO.

Until recently, I’ve never been a big fan of fisheye lenses.  They look cool for an occasional shot where the distortion really adds to the visual interest of the image.  My first test with Sigma’s 15mm f2.8 fisheye for Canon was on a ski shoot at Taos Ski Valley close to home in northern New Mexico. The lens is solidly made and has a nice feel to it.  It is easy to focus and has a decent hyperfocal scale on the focus ring.  I’m not too concerned about its focus speed  because with a super wide lens I use hyperfocal manual focus anyway.  I used this lens on my Canon 1D, Mark IV.  With a 1.3x  sensor the 15mm fisheye became just short of a 20mm on this camera and it didn’t produce the full fisheye distortion.

For ski action work at close range to my subject, I set the focus to a little beyond 4 feet and everything from about 3 feet to infinity is in focus at f8.   This lens produces a beautiful diffraction star when shooting into the sun.  In fact it is better than my Canon EF 20/f2.8.  Shooting at 1/1000 second at f8 produced very sharp and contrasty images.  There is noticeable chromatic aberration but it was easy to correct with a simple checkbox in Lightroom 4.  In most instances, I actually preferred the distortion.  This lens has a profile built in to Lightroom 4 and correcting for distortion is as easy as checking a box.  The 2 images below show the uncorrected image on top and the same image corrected for distortion beneath it. The corrected one chops too much off the corners but it makes the skier look taller and Lauri likes that!

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge.  Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye.   This shot shows some fisheye distortion.  The shot below was corrected for lens distortion in the built in profiles in Lightroom 4.

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge. Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye. This shot shows some fisheye distortion. The shot below was corrected for lens distortion in the built in profiles in Lightroom 4.

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge.  Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye.  Distortion correction was applied in RAW processing in Lightroom 4.

Lauri skiing across a rare flat section at Taos Ski Valley off of Highline Ridge. Shot with a Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye. Distortion correction was applied in RAW processing in Lightroom 4.

 

All in all this is a great lens especially for shooting into the sun with lots of depth of field, contrast and sharpness.  I know fisheyes are popular for landscape photography but I can see using this lens just as much for unique sports action shooting too.  Definitely a worthwhile pro lens.

taos-chair-2-sun

Lauri and I riding up chair 2 at Taos Ski Valley with the morning sun cresting the ridge. Shot with Canon 1D Mark IV with Sigma 15mm/f2.8 fisheye.